BWW Reviews: CHEROKEE Sends Woolly on a Spirit Journey

By: Feb. 19, 2015
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Woolly Mammoth's beautiful theater in which every seat has an intimate view of the expansive stage and the company's diehard dedication to new plays has found another win in Lisa D'Amour's follow up to 2013's DETROIT. Upon entering audiences are immediately greeted with recordings of tribal music and Daniel Ettinger's set dense with flat planks giving the illusion of trees stretching far above. This play is all about transformations, sometimes subtle and sometimes ridiculous to the extreme, and it couldn't have found a better home than Woolly, who's aesthetic seems motivated by the constant need to innovate, explore, and reinvent, not only from season to season and production to production, but often from act to act and even scene to scene. All around, the creative, production, and design teams have risen to the challenge of A'Mour's play and together have created an epic highlight in the DC theater scene.

Two couples arrive for a camping trip at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, North Carolina, each looking to run away and transform themselves in their own way. John and Janine, (Paul Morella and Jennifer Mendenhall), are at an emotional breaking point after a meaningless promotion at John's corporate job as an oil executive. Mike and Traci, (Thomas W. Jones II and Erica Chamblee), are hoping to conceive during the trip. The vacation starts expectedly enough, with the group pontificating about nature and acknowledging the contradictions between their surroundings and the oil company jobs both men hold, but when a member of the group mysteriously disappears in the middle of the night A'Mour starts journeying further and further through the woods, past time and reality and deeper into the pure desires of these characters when freed from their societal responsibilities.

Sound designer Palmer Hefferan brings the nature to Northwest DC with an ever changing and always present array of birds and rustling, while Colin K. Bills' keeps the light level low, creating the effect of a forest canopy and even the wind blowing through the trees. The most surprising part of this production are the large-scale projections beamed onto a screen hanging above the action. These projections, by Aaron Fisher, mainly serve as the backdrops for scenes that take place outside of the park and in the city, but are at their most inventive when showing the character's selfies the moment after they take it on stage or when impossibly inserting the characters into a restaurant, (an ingenious effect, but not a very well executed one). However, this usage of projections has become so commonplace in theater, from local amateur stages to the Kennedy Center to New York, that it's almost a relief when the screen disappears for the second act and the focus goes back to the simple set.

Uniting all these distinct elements is director John Vreeke, who makes sense out of the chaos and keeps the pace swift, both in the first act made up of short, tangential scenes, and in the second act, a continuous, dialogue-driven exploration and culmination of the play's theme. Josh, (Jason Grasl), is ironically the first actor to be scene but also the last character to enter the story as a native of Cherokee, who's introduction to the group stirs the drama. Throughout the play, the cast of five proves their unique versatility as they seamlessly portray the many different sides that hide behind their character's shallow facades. In the end, A'Mour asks whether transformation is possible, and if so how, and without answering or not answering, what is for certain is that there is no better place to find out than at CHEROKEE.

Photo from theater's website.

CHEROKEE runs approximately two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission, and includes water vapor haze.

CHEROKEE runs through March 8th at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, 641 D St. NW DC 20004. For tickets visit, call 202-393-3939, or visit the box office.


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